Coconut oil – good or bad nutritionally?

"Eat to Live, Not Live to Eat"
John H Weisburger, 2000


This is currently a very controversial topic, with public opinion ranging the full spectrum from it being the latest 'wonder food' to the other extreme of 'keep it out of your diet altogether'.  The following blog is just one representative example of the totally different perspectives that people can have - The Skeptical Nutritionist.    It illustrates opinions based on blind faith in the merit of traditional cuisines, to faddism, personal testimonials and anecdotes, grower self-interest, media articles with an eye on ratings, unsubstantiated marketing hype by the processing industry, lack of knowledge, and misinterpretation or incomplete consideration of the relevant scientific facts, amongst others.

The NZ National Heart Foundation became sufficiently concerned about the situation that they felt it was necessary to review the evidence and issue summary guidelines for the public (Food New Zealand (Oct-Nov 2014), p24-25, and (Dec 2014- Jan 2015), p17-19), as follows:

Indigenous populations that consume traditional diets with coconut products, along with fish and vegetables (unsaturated fats and fibre) combined with a physically active lifestyle, are unlikely to be at risk of cardiovascular disease from the consumption of coconut products. The situation for indigenous populations who eat a traditional diet is vastly different to that of people consuming a typical "Western" diet. For these populations, coconut oil is 92% saturated and nothing in the literature disputes the fact that it acts as a saturated fat and raises total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. Coconut oil, like all saturated fats, should be limited to 7%-10% of calorie intake according to current dietary guidelines.

Like all food, if small quantities of coconut products are enjoyed in food recipes, then this is unlikely to be a problem. They need not be eliminated from the diet but should be consumed in moderation. This can be done by including unsaturated oils of high nutritional quality such as olive, avocado or canola oil with the cooking recipe and reducing the amount of coconut oil or cream. This has the dual benefit of reducing saturated fat intake whilst increasing unsaturated fatty acid intake. Light coconut cream or milk is a sensible substitute for full fat coconut cream.

A further quote from their report  – 'The evidence that coconut oil is super-healthful is not convincing and these claims appear to be more testimonials than clinical evidence.'

For their review, the NHF found only ten human clinical trials that they considered acceptable evidence to answer this question, and they mainly based their conclusions on two of these.  There are many more epidemiological studies but these can only ever show associations and can be subject to influence by many other variables, both recognised and unrecognised.  Although they didn't include the full range of molecular biological, biochemical, physiological and other animal/human studies on the properties of coconut oil to give a more complete evaluation, they nevertheless probably got the answer right.  Coconut oil is neither of the extremes mentioned in the introduction, and consumption should be quite limited given it contains virtually no essential fatty acids and has lots of empty calories (eg see National Nutrient Database.)

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